In 2008, Harbor Missionary Church commenced Operation Embrace to provide limited care and religious services for homeless men and women living in Ventura. In January 2013, the City told the Church that it needed to obtain a conditional use permit to continue its homeless ministry. In February 2013, the Church applied for a conditional use permit, which the City denied. The Church then filed suit claiming that the City’s denial infringed on its religious practices and, pending the lawsuit, sought a preliminary injunction to keep open its ministry to the homeless. The district court denied the Church’s request, holding that a preliminary injunction was not appropriate because the Church faced no substantial burden in having to move its “homeless services” to another location, and, even if it did, the complete denial of the permit was the least restrictive way to mitigate the City’s safety concerns.
On appeal, the court found that the City’s denial of the conditional use permit prevented the Church from conducting its homeless ministry, an integral part of its religion, without suffering substantial delay, uncertainty, and expense. Specifically, the substantial cost associated with relocating the site of the Church demonstrated that the denial of the conditional use permit substantially burdened the Church’s religious exercise. Accordingly, the district court erred in determining that the Church’s religious exercise was not substantially burdened by denial of a conditional use permit. Next, while the district court did not err in finding that the City had a compelling interest in promoting public safety and in preventing crime, it was not clear how a complete denial of the conditional use permit was the least restrictive means by which the City could further its compelling interest in public safety. As such, the court remanded the case for the district court to detail why the conditional use permit recommended by the City’s staff would or would not sufficiently protect the neighborhood from any negative effects shown to be the result of the Church’s ministry to the homeless.
Harbor Missionary Church Corp. v City of San Buenaventura, 642 Fed. Appx. 726 (9th Cir. CA 3/14/2016)